Yom Kippur 5774: A Hard, Hard Day

Shana tova! Happy New Year! This is my first post of the New Year, 5774, and unfortunately, the themes of tension in this post are feelings that have accompanied the beginning of the year. At the same time, there are good things happening too, but it is hard to feel comfortable when I can’t get my mind off other things causing me anxiety. We are still in the middle of the hagim, Jewish holidays, though and I have hope that things will get a bit easier and more joyful soon.

Now, to the story of my Yom Kippur.

Moving to a new place soon before the holidays isn’t too much fun. On the one hand, you get to test drive a bunch of synagogues in a short amount of time, but you aren’t really able to have a strong connection to a community that feels truly yours for some really important days of the year. Luckily, finding a few synagogues to frequent for services hasn’t been too tough, but it does make me a bit homesick for my congregation where I converted.

The melodies of Yom Kippur are some of my favorite in the Jewish liturgical year. I feel like as soon as Yom Kippur is over, the melodies that my soul has poured forth retreat and spend all year dancing around in my head just waiting to be released at the first Slichot service the next year, a service just a few days before the Jewish New Year and about two weeks before Yom Kippur.  I am in that stage right now, still humming the sounds that filled last weekend, and just like last year, they will never go away but just continue to build inside of me until I can sing them out again next year, G-d willing. The way I think of the melodies is a good description of the way I think of Yom Kippur in general. It is close to the beginning of the year, but in so many ways, I see it as the culmination and climax of the preceding year. All moments of 5773 lead up to that point, Yom Kippur 5774, where I stare soberly at where I have been and where I hope to go and all I can do is pray.

After spending hours in services on Yom Kippur morning, a friend and I took a walk. On this walk we discussed our own unique experiences of the holidays and more broadly community and identity. He raised many thought provoking questions for me. The sheer amount of questions and difference of perspective caused me to turn inward once again and reflect on difficult and challenging experiences of years past. Overwhelming feelings of loneliness, sadness, and absence swallowed me. I felt uneasy and anxious. These are feelings I had been bottling up for months. Feelings that would come in strong waves and then buried deep inside of me to the point where I didn’t feel anything at all. That is the way I experience depression, having no feelings at all. It took a cold grey day in September, filled with prayer, reflection and hunger, to surface these feelings. I wanted to escape them. I was scared, but I knew I had to face them. I had to sit with the heartache so I could feel again, the good and the bad. Following the dramatic mood, I found myself an isolated spot in a mostly deserted parking lot and lied down. As my head  hit the pavement, tears hit my cheeks.  Tears from bottled up pain that had kept me from truly forgiving myself for all the hurt I put myself through. All the judgements I placed on myself. The lack of self care I took. The last tears were shed before Neilah, the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, when the gates are closed and are fate is sealed.

Was this final act of repentance done in time?  My fate for the year to come is unknown to me, but either way, I am prepared to continue to reflect and grow stronger. I am prepared to sit with my feelings no matter how uncomfortable, as to avoid the possibility of not feeling anything at all. I am prepared to fully inhabit these feelings, to fully feel them so I can fully live life.

My rabbi once gave a dvra torah where he said (I am paraphrasing) a day fully experienced is a day with laughing, crying, and learning. Although this was said years ago, it has stuck with me and I often fall back on this thought. With this idea, Yom Kippur 5774, really was the first day I have fully experienced in some time, and that makes me extremely grateful for the hard, hard day. 

Claiming The Homes I Don’t Fit Into

Originally written: July 10th, 2013

I am getting ready to move… again. I am moving back to the States to begin a master’s program in the Fall. I originally planned to live in Israel for at least 3 years, so leaving after just one year has been really emotional. As I get ready to move into a new apartment, I have been scouring the internet for discount furniture and decor ideas. I always have been a fan of searching for organizing and planning types of website but the amount of excitement and energy I have for planning out my new apartment even surprised me. I realized that part of the excitement is because the living space I have had this year in Israel consisted mainly of things that were included in our rental or borrowed from my adviser. You can’t walk into my apartment and say that any part of it really reflects me, other than the laundry scattered around my bedroom). Realizing that made me think back on the spaces I have lived in since I left my parent’s house after graduating high school. In the past 5 years, I have lived in 10 different rented apartments/rooms. That does not include spending a few weeks over summer or winter break at a friends or relatives, living out of a suitcase for about a month at a time. The 10 “homes” are places I rented for at least a few months at a time, never meeting the same apartment or roommate twice. With so much transience, I still never hesitated to call any apartment home. I just always knew that the address was temporary.

With all the moving of the past few years, and getting ready to move yet again, this time to a new city, I am starting to reflect on where my “home” really is. I know that “home” can be understood in many ways that aren’t a physical place, but I have been concentrating on where my home physically is in the world. Where could I go if I wanted to go home?

Converting to Judaism was finding my home, my place in the Jewish people. The place I belong, the place my soul belongs, is beyond any doubt tied to Am Israel, the People of Israel. That is the place the Hashem has carved out for me within History. I define Judaism as my home because it is were my soul is comforted. It is where I feel I belong and fit in to the rhythm so perfectly. Converting felt like uniting what was always suppose to be.  It isn’t like salt finding pepper but like the chemicals that make up salt finding each other so they can become a united substance that makes itself useful. From the analogies above you can clearly see that I can’t quite articulate the feeling but it is something I feel intensely. Find Judaism as a beautiful home doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges within the match, but at the end of day, I know my soul and Judaism create a synergy, and that makes me feel warm and secure.

With the amazing sense of comfort that my spiritual home brings me, I ask myself what physical place replicates this. The two logical answers to the question, “Where is my home?” are my hometown, where I spent the majority of my first 18 years, and Israel, the home of all Jewish people and where I have begun to create roots living in Jerusalem. People go “home” for the holidays and most special occasions I have celebrated have been in South Texas, at various relatives’ houses. Jews have endured amazing feats to return “home” to Israel, and I too am drawn to Israel as a Jew. These should be the answers. These are the answers, but I think that a big part of why they are the answers are because I don’t have a better idea right now, but I don’t feel comfortable calling them “home” based on my previous, presumptuous definition. I do not fit in in these places. Arriving at either place does not fill me with the warm sense of relief that filled me after my mikvah brought my soul home, not even to a lesser degree. I am filled with anxiety, on edge, in these places. Sometimes, these homes become a source of depression or anger. I also often feel discomfort in these places. The differences I have from everyone else there come out front and center and I am left feeling isolated. Life in both places is far from warm and fuzzy. The challenges remain challenges without knowing there is overall comfort. These feelings make me feel like they aren’t home either, but that isn’t true.

I may never be completely comfortable in these places, but these places belong to me as much as they do to anyone else that calls these places home. Whether I feel it or not, I belong in these places. They are mine.  I belong in Israel as much as any other Jew. It is not any less my home just because I don’t speak Hebrew, I am Mexican, I converted or because I practice Conservative Judaism. It is my Home too. The same reasoning is applied to S. Texas.

Having the power to claim the spaces for myself is something that I have lacked. But even though I am different, it is just as much mine. Through circumstances beyond me, that only Hashem knows, I belong there.

Instead of staying away and feeling like I am just a visitor, I need to build the courage to claim my place. My comfort with Judaism made me realize that I belong there, but finding Home can work the other way too. I can realize I belong and comfort may follow.

Forgiving

Rosh Hashanah is only about a week away, and the approaching High Holy Days bring about responsibility to reflect on actions and emotions of the past year in order to ask those around us for forgiveness. It is only through reaching out to those around us that we can go before Hashem and ask for mercy and forgiveness. With so much concentration on the act of asking for forgiveness it is easy to forget the other half of our job- forgiving.

Right now, I am angry, hurt and bitter. The past few weeks have been a roller coaster of emotions, and I have just been informed of the third death in the past month of someone I loved. As I just began to feel some stability within me, I now feel surrounded by death.

It is hard to try and make sense of the loss and hurt, especially while being overwhelmed by many other stresses and blessings in my life. With Rosh Hashanah so close, I feel that there is a lesson here for me. I need to forgive. I should not only forgiving those family members and friends who have hurt me but also Hashem. I feel anger towards Hashem, mostly because I am frustrated by my lack of understanding. At the same time I am aware that just as I want to stand before those in my life and Hashem and be forgiven, I need to forgive those who have hurt me, including Hashem.

I have no time between now and the Holy Days to go through stages of grief and/or reasonably come to a state of forgiveness, yet I must forgive sincerely. It is hard because I want to be angry. I remind myself that there is a reason that the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer not referring to death but Hashem’s sovereignty, is said after a death. It reminds us that despite death, despite hurt, anger, loss and fear Hashem is in the world and in control. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the same thing. I am thankful for this helpful reminder in the liturgical year, especially so close to such significant personal loss.

A Jew is a Jew is a Jew… Right?

I converted in Conservative Judaism, and while I am not ashamed, my first response to the question of my religion is just Jewish. I don’t say “a Jew by choice” or ” a Conservative Jew,” but  just that I am “a Jew.” I don’t do this because I am trying to hide who I am or because I want to trick someone into believing something else. I do it because in my mind a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.

Earlier this week, a dear friend of mine finished his conversion to Orthodox Judaism. I have known him a year, and we have both been very supportive of each other throughout the process of the others conversion, even though we live on separate sides of the world and have chosen two different branches of Judaism. We have connected many times and shared stories and questions that were very similar.  We had very similar experiences despite being in different countries, of different genders and choosing different paths. Throughout our conversion processes, it was our interactions that further reinforced the idea that “a Jew is a Jew is a Jew.” Today, he sent me some pictures of the celebration he had with some close friends after his mikveh. Looking at the pictures made me feel like I was looking at a totally different world. The sight of the black hats and the absence of women in the pictures were both alienating images. I knew the pictures were of Jews and that they were beautiful images but it wasn’t a feeling of connection. I believe that his Judaism is also my Judaism. We share the same religion, but the images themselves were not a point of deep religious connection. My connection to the images did not come naturally, but only when I stopped and told myself that the pictures were of Jews celebrating a Jewish event and I also was Jewish.  As hard as I tried, I could not imagine myself in the room that was pictured. It was foreign.

Right now, I am attending an orientation for the program I will be doing next year in Israel, and everyone in my cohort is a Jew. We all practice differently and some would consider themselves more or less religious than others. I consider myself fairly religious. I am quick to say that my practices do not reflect Orthodox Judaism but none the less are pretty traditional in many ways. This week, both the pictures from my friend and the orientation taught me that maybe that isn’t as true as I thought.

In a room full of Jews (Orthodox, Conservadox, Conservative, Reform, secular, and other), I quickly found my niche in the group with the less religious Jews. Despite ordering the kosher meal and dressing tznius (I sometimes don’t cover my elbows, but did the entire orientation), my place of comfort and friendship in the group was not even among the other Conservative Jews.

This week is making me step back and start the process of thinking about where I really find comfort and connection to others in the larger Jewish picture. I am sure that my place will continue to be carved out when I move to Israel and am surround by even more Jews. I look forward to the process of staying true to what I have learned, who I am becoming and  finding my community within the community.

My weekly meditation: Habakkuk 3:2

“…though angry, remember Your compassion.” Habakkuk 3:2

Each week, I pick a verse or even a few words of Scripture or something else meaningful to meditate on each day. Something that I feel relates to my current situation and can be meaningful and relevant in times of joy and sorrow.  With the changes of everyday, each day I find new meaning within the words.

This week, the words that have really stuck with me are the words of Habakkuk as he pleads with Hashem to be compassionate and return to Jerusalem. These words have served as a personal plea within myself this week. I cry out from within my heart each day for patience and compassion as pray to Hashem, interact with others, and evaluate myself. Most importantly, I try to be fully present in my relationships with others and connect with them past superficial levels. Though I am in a state of stress and anxiety, I try my best to bring my whole self to my relationships and reach out in new ways. I try to find patience with Hashem, others, myself and life. When I begin to fill with negativity, I take a deep breath and ground myself with the words, “…though angry, remember your compassion.”

Where the hell is the redemption?

Passover has finally come. I have so many emotions about the holiday I have been thinking about and beginning to record, but I feel the need to post something else first.

Today, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A few weeks ago is when he first went to the doctor and found something abnormal, but today still came as a somewhat shock to my family. My father is young and in generally good health. I know that prostate cancer is usually treatable and trust that with proper care he will soon be well.

At the same time, I did have a few moments of tears and an overall day of contemplation. Even with the belief that my father will be okay, a stream of emotions came across me. Cancer is a big word. It brings up all sorts of feelings, and for me it most definitely brings up the idea of mortality. So many loved ones in my life have passed away from complications of cancer. And most recently, my grandfather was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer but is luckily in remission now. This also makes me question my own death and have the feeling that cancer is also inevitably in my future. It is news like this that makes me realize what little control I have over life, and that scares me.

I live my life with a fairly realistic outlook. I know death is inevitable, and I hope when the day comes I will accept and maybe even embrace it. I know that other things in life are also out of my control. As much as I want to accept this, I find a part of me fighting. I am not angry at Hashem but frustrated by my lack of understanding. I am in the middle of Passover, a holiday about redemption, and receiving bad news and reflecting on the fact that there are bad things in the world. I have to ask myself, where the hell is the redemption?

I understand that being redeemed does not mean that everything is perfect, and making the world a better place is something we do have some control over. These are just my current frustrations. I will continue to celebrate Passover. I will continue to not eat chametz. Even though, I am not yet liable, not part of Israel, and sure don’t feel redeemed (right now).